Sociology of Prison Life Research Paper

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The sociology of prison life concentrates on thick descriptions of the actions and accounting practices that make up the distinctive social organization of a prison. Chief amongst its preoccupations have been how administrators and staff strive to maintain an authority which can never be wholly legitimate in the eyes of their captives; how, in turn, those captives contend individually and collectively with conditions of deprivation and adversity, including the adversities inflicted by their fellow inmates (Morris and Morris 1966, pp. 168–9); how a negotiated social order can emerge out of the exchanges between the two; and how, as a result, prisons manage to persist at all.

The proper study of prison had to await the emergence of universities and other institutions that could sustain social research, deploy some form of fieldwork as part of its methodology, and appreciate that the prison is a strange institution which ‘challenges the anthropological imagination’ (Sparks et al. 1996, p. 33). It was not until the 1940s and beyond that those three strands converged in what are commonly held to be the first significant pieces of writing about the sociology of prison life, Clemmer’s (1940) The Prison Community and, perhaps more important, Sykes’s (1958) The Society of Captives and Goffman’s (1961) Asylums. Because they set a pattern and foil for much of what was to come, it is useful to recite their principal arguments.

The Prison Community reported research conducted in the 1930s in a penitentiary for adult felons by a sociologist attached to the mental health staff. Clemmer used the methods of anthropology to study what he called the ‘facts of social life,’ the groupings, patterns of leadership, controls, leisure pursuits, sex, and work of prison, and to illustrate the complex relations, and the informal relations in particular, of a predatory, suspicious and atomized world of inmates banded publicly against authority but privately riddled by informers and mistrust.

The Society of Captives depicted inmates suffering ‘the pains of imprisonment’ and striving for the goals of better food, more rewarding work, fuller information, access to sex and pornography, security, status, and autonomy, formally denied them by an administration that purported to treat all prisoners more or less alike and certainly completely distinct from staff. It was in this sense that prison was held to engender anomic pressures that led, in their turn, to the production of illegitimate stratagems, informal social structures and a code of conduct that could satisfy a number of the inmates’ aspirations. Inmates were enjoined not to interfere in one another’s business, not to ‘lose their head,’ not to exploit one another, not to weaken, and not to trust the guards. Like many another code, it was largely exhortatory, a form of ‘figurative action’ rather than a reliable predictor of behavior and its accompanying social relations generated neither ‘a perfect solidarity … [nor] a warring aggregate’ (Sykes 1958, p. 83). In practice, some prisoners were forced or encouraged to service the sexual demands of others; some asserted their social standing by violence, defiance or conspicuous example; some supported illegal markets in the provision of goods; and overlapping hierarchies emerged.

The ensuing social order was ostensibly clandestine and based on a rejection of the rejecters, and the staff were supposed to suppress it, but the staff confronted their own difficulties. They themselves wielded great power in principle but little in effect, they were constrained by rules and the practical exigencies and limits of control, they were outnumbered, troubled by the precariousness of their authority, and discouraged from drawing their weapons lest they be disarmed by inmates. Their reply was to replace a formal equality of treatment by a de facto recognition and rewarding of the stronger inmates and inmate groupings, and they did so in exchange for a devolved social order in which inmates effectively regulated one another. The consequence was what Sykes called ‘functional corruption,’ but it could as readily be seen in functionalist language as a drift towards system integration, equilibrium, or homeostasis, an exemplification of the doctrine that the latent functions of action can work in seemingly paradoxical fashion to promote stability in social systems.

Goffman (1961) worked as a participant–observer in a mental hospital in Washington, DC, to construct a model of asylums, prisons, and like organizations as ‘people-processing’ ‘total institutions’ that were substantially cut off from the larger world by symbolic and physical boundaries; a continuous round of activity lived publicly within the walls; a relative lack of internal differentiation of space, role, and temporal schedule; an unbridgeable divide between staff and inmates; and, through what he called a ‘mortification of the self,’ the discarding of old identities and the assumption of new, degraded, and formally homogeneous identities peculiar only to the institution.

Five main processes have shaped the character and development of much of the work that followed. First has been the adoption of a somewhat critical stance. It was unavoidable that criminologists, penologists, and sociologists came motivated to the study of prison life, sometimes wishing to reform prisons, sometimes to abolish them, and sometimes—more rarely—to analyze them with the dispassion that they might extend to any other social institution. But it has been a strong distaste for prisons that has colored much of what they have written, and a number have been avowedly partisan and, indeed, polemical in their work. That stance has, in its turn, led to methodological difficulties in winning access to, and trust from, a number of key groups in prison, and prison officers especially.

Work has, second, selectively incorporated interpretations of transformations occurring in the political, administrative, and demographic conditions of penal institutions. In the United States, for instance, the sociology of prison life was born in descriptions of autocratic, laissez-faire regimes and the resistance that was waged by conservative inmates who feared they might lose power in the face of administrative reform. It moved on through a discussion of American penology’s flirtation with rehabilitation in the early 1960s and the dilemmas that arose when the particularistic ethos of treatment confronted the universalism of disciplinary control. It looked at the radical politicization of prisoners, and particularly of black prisoners, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It analyzed the efforts at legalistic reform, the organizational instabilities, fragmentation of inmate communities, and new waves of riots of the 1970s and early 1980s. And it has culminated most recently in an analysis of the new, racialized politics of mass incarceration and incapacitation that, in Simon’s phrase, is the consequence of ‘governing through crime’ (Simon 1993).

Internally, American prisons were to become ‘Balkanized’ into antagonistic racial camps based in some measure on a prior membership of street gangs. Externally, Simon has claimed, the logic of the penal system was to be extended out from the prisons through parole, policing, and probation to subject large blocks of the population, and particularly the young, black male population of the cities of the United States, to a tight control based on actuarial and risk-driven calculations of propensities to offend. Prison life has, in effect, spread beyond the walls of the American penitentiary to the ghetto.

Third, like the sociology of almost any other substantive area, the study of prison life has tended to edit and import some of the more general and evolving theoretical preoccupations of sociology at large as they have appeared to illuminate, and be illuminated by, those structural changes. It has already been observed, for instance, that work was launched inside a context set by the structural-functionalism and anomie theory of the 1940s and 1950s, a context suited to the study of willful, autocratic repression. Current work focuses on issues of resistance and authority, gender and power, ‘governmentality’ and ‘structuration,’ and other matters now engaging a number of the wings of sociology.

Fourth, like any other method, and aided by those transformations, interpretations and theoretical preoccupations, its focus has advanced restlessly from one phenomenon to another, continually introducing new ‘facts’ with which to re-interpret prison life. Above all, it has produced what is in effect a running series of footnotes or qualifications to the foundational models of the 1950s and 1960s.

It was easy enough at the beginning to overlook some of the finer and more nuanced details of structure. The social anthropologist in the American penologist would have been fascinated by the inmate community’s vividly phrased argot and roles. What was less often reported—because it was less obtrusive and less interesting at first sight—was the presence of those who were relatively disengaged and played no part in the clandestine life of the prison, the ‘retreatists’ and others: who tried to serve their time uneventfully and discreetly and who eventually became interesting precisely because of their earlier neglect. What was also partially obscured at first was the lives of those apart from the inmate. Sociologists moved away from the inmate and towards chaplains, medical officers, and others: for example, the male prison officer beset by problems of violence, and the female prison officer and her gendering of control.

Studies report not only the features that were neglected in the earliest work, but also new features that have emerged since that work was done, but much remains unexplored, for instance, the structural repercussions of the social class of prisoners, aging and the age composition of prison populations, the world of prison administration, and such groupings as gay prisoners and the prison untouchables (the ‘nonces’ or nonsenses of English prison argot) imprisoned for sexual and violent offences against children or the elderly.

Most important, the political control of discreditable information and the absence of a sense of anthropological curiosity and of a robust ethnographic tradition in much of the world have ensured that there have been almost no studies of prison life outside Britain, North America and a few small pockets of northern Europe. Sociologists began to emphasize how the early models had tended to extrapolate from one form of time-bound regime alone, the American, authoritarian, maximum security prison for men. It is a model that works well enough where power is arbitrary and formally unchecked, controllers are outnumbered and resistance is fragmented, and it applies broadly to German concentration camps and Soviet labor camps as well as to some of the prisons of the United States. But doubts have been raised about how far or strictly it should otherwise be generalized. It is clearly a limited model. Take Ketchum (1965), who described how in Ruhleben, an internment prison camp established in Berlin for the citizens of countries hostile to Germany in the First World War, there could be seen almost none of the informal responses to incarceration listed by Clemmer, Goffman or Sykes. To the contrary: the inmate population behaved cooperatively, peacefully, and without mutual exploitation, and its conduct invites questions about the impact of class, shame, and pre-existing patterns of organization on the social construction of prison life.

Again, take research on a number of therapeutic or rehabilitative regimes outside the United States. Sparks (1994) studied Barlinnie, a small unit for long-term prisoners in a Scottish prison, and Genders and Player (1995) examined Grendon Underwood, an English therapeutic prison to which serving prisoners in other establishments could elect to go. The three authors declared that neither Barlinnie nor Grendon was critically troubled by the legitimation crises or conflicts of other prisons, but both institutions did benefit from being regimes within regimes—inmates could always be transferred back to the larger and more coercive system from which they had come—and it would be wrong to assume that therapy alone is a proof against disorder or confrontation. So it was that Mathieson’s (1965) Defences of the Weak described a medium-secure Norwegian prison, organized on therapeutic lines, whose disunited and cynical inmates challenged those who guarded them in a language of ‘censoriousness’ that turned therapeutic ideology into a medium of criticism, defense, and attack. Theirs was a response very dissimilar to that of other models.

A second, allied form of qualification to the foundational model attacked the proposition that prisons are total institutions which sever biographies and create new men and women within an indigenous culture (Sparks et al. 1996, p. 44). Instead of the fractured identities described by Goffman, study after study has revealed that inmates actually bring with them beliefs, associations, and styles of behavior from the outer world.

The importation into prison of social forms from the street gangs and antagonistic racial politics of America has already been noted, and there are other borrowings that have presumably been colored by local and national traits in the world outside the walls. Thus, Irwin and Cressey (1962) talked in America of thieves who carried a wider criminal culture into prisons, treating imprisonment as a career contingency; convicts whose behavior was a localized adaptation to the special travails of prison life; and square Johns who had an allegiance to neither convict nor thief but to a show of obedience to authority. Also, Cohen and Taylor (1972) talked about the affinities between the manner in which long-term inmates in Durham Prison in England managed problems of serving time and the offenses for which they had been convicted, armed robbers worrying about physical deterioration and concentrating on body-building exercises, and fraudsters engaging in copious attempts at litigation.

The discovery of the gendered character of imprisonment is as revealing. The very first studies dwelt on institutions for men. Whilst it was recognized from the outset that male inmates confronted largely male problems stemming from a loss of liberty, status, and heterosexual contact, gender itself was not treated as especially problematic or interesting. It was only when ideas about sexual identity were applied in explanations of the behavior of women inmates in the 1960s, women who were said to form themselves into pseudo-families in response to a loss of emotional sustenance, that the influence of gender itself became notable. Other sociologists have subsequently exextended and modified that early work, but the thesis that women combine together differently remains. Later, ideas about masculinity were themselves turned back on the social organization of men’s prisons to translate them into places ordered by a ‘hegemonic masculinity.’ Male prisons, it was argued, must be understood as institutions that are dominated by a very masculine exercise of violence, reliance on hierarchy, ritualized combativeness, and the suppression of displays of emotion and vulnerability.

Last, it must be stressed how closely, although never absolutely, the study of prison life has been bound up with the use of ethnographic methods (Terence and Pauline Morris said of their base in Pentonville Prison, London, that it was ‘like the anthropologist’s hut on the village street’ (Morris and Morris 1966, p. 8)). Its history has, by extension, roughly paralleled the rise and fall of sociological ethnography itself. It was probably at its most vigorous between the 1950s and early 1970s, when, according to Janowitz, it ‘contain[ed] some of the most outstanding research monographs in sociology’ (Foreword to Jacobs 1977, p. ix). Its decline may be linked in part to the seemingly inevitable half-life enjoyed by any body of theory and research, and to problems of access and publication that began to surface in the 1970s when prisons were turbulent and their managers became politically defensive and defeatist. But it may also be attributed to the ascent to influence of Michel Foucault (1979), whose political economy of discipline prompted scholars to turn en bloc to reflections about what they called ‘penality’ in a markedly more abstract and empirically disengaged manner.

Foucault took Bentham’s plans for a concentric, panopticon prison to be an especially telling representation of the new technologies of control that were emerging in society at large. Prisoners in the brightly lit rim could never know whether they were being observed by guards in the shadowy inspection tower at the center, and the result was supposed to be that they would discipline themselves, colluding in their own subordination in a decentralized, self-sustaining, economical and dispersed system of power. The panopticon was never finally constructed in England, and Foucault’s history was flawed, but so seductive and wide-reaching was his metaphor that it became an archetype for a large new family of ideas, and sociologists came to adopt Foucault rather than Clemmer, Sykes or Goffman as their mentor. Jonathan Simon (1999, p. 4) observed that, ‘the great tradition of studies of prison social organization that begins with Clemmer and Sykes … has largely ceased in the last twenty years … Much of the research now is conducted from afar [and] … the new distance introduces important interpretive problems … .’

Bibliography:

  1. Clemmer D 1940 The Prison Community. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York
  2. Cohen S, Taylor L 1972 Psychological Survival. Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK
  3. Foucault M 1979 Discipline and Punish. Penguin, London
  4. Genders E, Player E 1995 Grendon: A Study of a Therapeutic Prison. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  5. Goffman E 1961 Asylums. Doubleday Anchor, Garden City, NY
  6. Irwin J, Cressey D 1962 Thieves, convicts and the inmate culture. Social Problems 10: 145–55
  7. Jacobs J 1977 Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  8. Ketchum J 1965 Ruhleben: A Prison Camp Society. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  9. Mathieson T 1965 Defences of the Weak. Tavistock, London
  10. Morris T, Morris P 1966 Penton ville: A Sociological Study of an English Prison. Routledge, London
  11. Simon J 1993 Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  12. Simon J 1999 The ‘society of captives’ in the era of hyperincarceration. Unpublished paper
  13. Sparks R 1994 The Barlinnie Special Unit as prison and escape. Prison Service Journal 95: 2–6
  14. Sparks R, Bottoms A, Hay W 1996 Prisons and the Problem of Order. Clarendon Press, Oxford
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